reflections on IAS17

some thoughts and a lot of feelings about attending Information Architecture Summit 2017.

It’s Friday at noon, and I need to pick a table to sit at for lunch. My plate is heavy with macaroni and cheese, fish, and some lettuce I take only because I feel I need to gastronomically convey to all these adults that I am not just another student with a terrible diet. I don’t recognize any faces in the room, but that is probably because I did not make any friends in the first half of the day.

I picked a table at random. My tablemates talk animatedly about their jobs. I eat my lunch (it is delicious) and consider the merits of looking at my phone to survive this, or excusing myself to eat alone somewhere else. I think about the first-timers event I did not attend the day before, and wonder if I have made a terrible mistake.

“So what about you?” the attendee next to me eventually asks, directly, to my face, so I cannot escape.

I imagine my response was along the lines of what I told everyone else — I study political science, I’m here because I like web design, I don’t really know what I want to do yet? Surrounded by so many professionals who aren’t susceptible to nervous laughing or uptalk on basic facts about themselves, I think I am too old to feel shy and too young to be here.

As it turns out, the attendee is David Fiorito, who runs Game Night and may be the friendliest person on the planet. When I muster up the nerve to ask if he has any advice for a first-timer, he leaves me with the following:

  1. Take time for yourself, as the conference can be overwhelming at times.
  2. Some of the best learning experiences take place in the hallways in between sessions, in conversation with others.
  3. Go to the socials.

I write this down in my phone. I take it with me for the rest of the weekend.

An Introduction

I am a woman of colour. I have read all the stories about men harassing women, marginalizing them, and pushing them out of tech industry. This is not new.

I think about how many women of colour I see attending this conference.

I think twice about commenting on how the entire lineup of keynote speakers is white. I don’t tweet this, not even without the hashtag. I am aware of how uncomfortable people get when you start talking about gender and race and power dynamics, and how much of it is an uphill battle when you are arguing from the bottom.

(Yes, you white person, reading this. Are you uncomfortable? Me too.)

There are several things I am trying to balance in this recap: my desire to add something of value to the collection of existing IAS recaps, written by much more professional people than myself; my current quest to get a job and project the requisite Professional Yet Personable Hire-Me Brand; my genuine thoughts and feelings about the conference and all the things that were discussed. And it feels like a risk, publishing this.

But also: what the fuck is the point of writing this if I don’t do so honestly? Like, none, so I’m just going to do this.

On capitalism, and other fun things

Alan Cooper delivers a fantastic opening keynote that I scramble to note and internalize. You are naive, he says, if you think tech companies are more benign than oil. He highlights the many problems I have with tech and Silicon Valley: tech is not somehow more ethical than other industries, tech is not a meritocracy where anyone can learn how to code and get rich, tech is not about building great products to make the world a better place.

Let me tell you: it is hard for me to be critical of this. It is hard to read stories of successful startups and the Silicon Valley gold rush, of twenty-somethings making six figures pushing code, of changing the world in beautiful San Francisco. It is hard to see all of this, and not think to myself, I want that. That dream is so fucking seductive.

But also: companies are growing faster than government regulations can keep them in check. The industry is following the same path as agriculture, where wealth becomes concentrated and industrialization prioritizes profit over sustainability. Alan Cooper’s message about the responsibility of tech practitioners for what social, political, and economic impact they have is a running theme throughout IAS17, and a necessary reminder to be critical of what is going on around us.

“Capitalism needs restraint.”
— Alan Cooper

I love this. I write down what would Foucault think? in my notes, and Foucault remains a running theme throughout the weekend. It is inspiring for IAS17 to open with such an explicit criticism of capitalism and of the tech industry, without watering down individual responsibility. It sets the tone for the rest of the conference, where criticism is healthy and accepted. Alan Cooper receives a standing ovation.

Opening remarks and keynote.

Thoughts: Recognition of Canada’s colonial legacy is the norm for events that take place in Vancouver. I wonder what international attendees thought of it.


Thomas Wendt continues this line of critique on Saturday morning. He argues that human-centered design focuses on the individual, leading it to ignore the systemic consequences of design — empathy is not a sufficient condition for ethics. And he actually has a Foucault quote on a slide, which makes me really excited because I had been writing his name in a lot of my notes at that point.

Technocratic solutions are not the best solutions to every problem. That’s another thing I take issue with when it comes to Silicon Valley-isms — sometimes (many times), the answer to a problem is not an app. I disagree with the idea that the tech industry is making the world a better place: it is a means that can be used towards any end.

“Innovation is not inherently good.”
— Thomas Wendt

A lot of my feelings about the tech industry are also informed by the fact that I am a minority. It is very, very difficult to put the industry on a moral pedestal when the same industry marginalizes and discriminates against people like me. And I take personal issue with the way being “disruptive” or whatever the fuck stops when it comes to systems of oppression — so you want to change the world, but you draw the line at looking inward at your company culture?

So. Thomas Wendt articulates a lot of my thoughts, and leaves me with questions to think on. It’s pretty fucking great.

Decentering Design.

Thoughts: Thomas Wendt argues that it is not bad to point out problems without suggesting solutions. This mirrors the academics vs. practioners debate that one of my political science classes briefly touched upon: academics will critique the hell out of a policy, which can put them at odds with policy practioners on the ground. It was interesting to see this sentiment manifest in the context of design.


— me tweeting, on day two

My friend sees this, and messages me later. Is this the $1000 conference you were talking about?

Yes, I type back, and pause.

I am a student. I managed to attend IAS17 only by volunteering as a student, further made convenient by the fact that the venue was in my backyard of Vancouver. This door will be closed to me next year, as graduation is imminent, I do not live in Chicago, and I have student loans. I am incredibly lucky that everything worked out the way it did this year.

I think about Dan Klyn’s closing keynote, about how his first IAS was made possible by, of all things, a Betsy Davos-funded non-profit. When I tell another friend of mine about how I just stumbled upon the IAS site one day, he is astonished.

“That’s it?” he asked. “You just randomly found it, an entire conference dedicated to something you like, happening in Vancouver, and you decided to go?”

Yes.

How often do wondrous opportunities drop into your lap, purely by chance? And how much of that factor of randomness is affected by who you are?

So I think it merits pausing and taking a moment to consider. What are the implications for expensive conferences taking place in expensive hotels? Who are the people that are have the resources to access this space? How does that shape the dialogue that takes place?

Part of me feels anxious writing this here, because class is such a difficult dimension to talk about. And I don’t have any answers to this, or any ideas as to how to address it. This is not to argue there are no operating costs associated with running a professional conference, or that attending should be free. Quality has costs. But I also think about this poem on McSweeney’s and think it might be worth it to put these questions here, to think about. Or at the very least, for me to think about.

(I am presently considering paying $250 to attend another conference here in July. Is it worth it? I don’t know yet. I’m still thinking.)

I am here for the food

I am already at an expensive conference, so I might as well make the most of it by consuming as much of the food as possible. In between sessions, I venture to the foyer and take pastries and eggs, and scuttle back to my seat without talking to anyone. I drink exclusively coffee (and wine) for three days. I partake in, as Amber Case puts it, the pre-digestive ritual of photographing my food before I eat it. I take mirror selfies in the slick hotel bathroom. It feels like the most millennial thing in the world.

At poster night on Friday, I look at approximately two and a half posters, and spend the rest of my time sitting at a table. I drink two glasses of wine, eat bits of Asian food (dumplings! spring rolls! fried rice! oh my), and draw people standing around.

There are these little Asian takeout boxes next to the food, which is hilarious to me. I have literally never seen Asian takeout boxes used in any authentic restaurant whatsoever, but rather exclusively as novelty items in movies and for white attendees like this. It’s funny, like the capital-E Exotic Foods aisle label at the grocery store. I take a photo of it.

Unfortunately, everyone was facing away from me, so this is just a load of everyone’s backsides. Fortunately, this also meant I could draw them without being noticed.

(SUGGESTION FOR A BUTTON AT A FUTURE CONFERENCE: “MILLENNIAL”, IN ADDITION TO MY “STUDENT” BUTTON)

Also learning things

Everything is political these days, they say, but maybe that is just because everything is so obviously fucking absurd these days that politics is just that salient. A couple of sessions I choose to attend because they tie back to my academics in some peripheral way.

Ethics and AI: Designing for Health. Carol Smith, Joel Wu, Astrid Chow, and Amy Chenault discuss bioethics, uses of AI in treating mental health, and building a framework for addressing this new field.

Thoughts: Earlier this year I did a research paper on medical ethics — science does not exist in a vacuum, because science is done by people. And science can be used by the government.

How to Design a Government Website for Kids. Emileigh Barnes walks us through the importance of language, inclusion, and incremental changes within government.

Thoughts:

  • I am broadly interested in the idea of children as agents, and in their political participation, as I was taking a class on children in conflict.
  • I actually go up and ask a question, which may be the farthest out of my comfort zone I go that weekend.
“Small progress adds up, even if it isn’t glamorous.”
— Emileigh Barnes
Designing for Diversity. Hosted by Michael Hardyand featuring Marla Hunta, Elena Yugai, and Adrienne Lai.

Thoughts:

  • Honestly, I’m still thinking about the fact that all the keynote speakers this weekend were white.
  • I have other thoughts too, but I don’t really know how to express them. My feelings are kind of mixed.

Some good, some bad

Good

I run into a former coworker during a break, and he reaffirms IAS’s reputation as an excellent conference with a great community. “I’ve been to a lot of other conferences,” he tells me, with the sage wisdom of a Professional Web Developer, “and this is one of the better ones.”

I believe this.

I go to Game Night on Saturday, even though I don’t know anyone there. I sit with a group of strangers. We play several rounds of Codenames, a game literally about taxonomies. I slip in and out of karaoke a while later, feeling burned out, and remember David Fiorito’s words: take time for yourself when you need it. I don’t feel guilty for leaving early.

Less good

I don’t go to the resume and portfolio review sessions. This is, in retrospect, maybe the most foolish decision I make that weekend. I walk by the room a dozen times, but in my mind I have already written off the possibility of dropping in. I tell myself I am not good enough, with enough conviction that I do not consider how that is precisely the reason I should go.

I think IAS did everything they could have to make the environment as welcoming to newcomers as possible. The rest is up to me — and I let myself down. I feel eighteen again, too afraid to step forward, saying no to opportunities because it is easier to not do something than to do it and fail. I sit on this for the next couple of weeks.

This is a message to myself: next time, do the fucking thing.

Better

Maybe the best thing I do is sketchnote all of the sessions I attend. It’s fun, challenging, and rewarding. I try to start and end when the speaker does, capture the most significant points, and have some kind of navigation system for when I inevitably need to snake around the page. (This is not that successful.)

Before I started calling myself a designer I called myself an artist, but I don’t really consider myself to fully inhabit either of those roles. I don’t feel like a political scientist either — this would be foolish, actually, being at an undergraduate level — and my student identity is quickly drying up. I think of myself more as someone who does (tries) art and design, but is not an artist or designer; these labels seem to carry weight and legitimacy, and I don’t think I’m there yet.

Drawing my way through my first design conference and making political commentary feels like an attempt at finding balance. I am not sure what comes next, but perhaps I will draw my way through it. Or, write about it.


Note: this was initially posted on my website in May 2017. It had been written and rewritten and written again over the course of two months. You can attribute inconsistencies and changing moods to that process. I’m reposting it here with minor grammatical edits.

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